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International Studies, 2005
Lives of Commitment, Hmong American Partnershp
Off-Campus Student Employment, Resource Center of the Americas
Action Fund Recipient
Casa de Esperanza
Macalester Christian Fellowship
From her earliest days at Macalester, Tricia Gonwa knew her work in the world would focus on international development. By her sophomore year, she had already achieved a prestigious Woodrow Wilson Scholarship for study in public affairs at Princeton University, and she was working in multiple ways in the Twin Cities community. What developed in the ensuing years was greater depth in understanding what it takes to create the change she envisioned.
"The first step in 'doing good' is admitting you don't know what to do and then trying to learn." -Tricia Gonwa '05
Gonwa pursued substantial work with immigrant and refugee populations, social services, and community crisis shelters in each of her four years at Macalester. She had her eye on a career in foreign service that would put her fluent foreign language skills to use and move her ever closer to working on policies to reduce poverty in developing countries.
Following graduation, she worked as a summer intern in the United States Department of State’s Bureau of International Organizations. There, she helped represent the U.S. negotiating position surrounding language on economic and social rights. That experience, and her subsequent graduate work in public affairs at Princeton, underscored her belief that aligning individual values with professional work can be deeply rewarding. What was equally clear, however, was that tangible skills are paramount.
“You can’t solve world problems simply because you want to,” she says from her position as Liberia Country Director for Innovations for Poverty Action. Gonwa recently moved to Liberia, joining IPA after a stint as a senior project manager at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. J-PAL and IPA seek to reduce poverty worldwide by ensuring that social programs and policies are rigorously evaluated and tested for cost effectiveness. "Organizations that have the most effect try to achieve things concretely, and that takes skills as well as ideas.”
Acquiring a set of skills is a core principle that guides Gonwa’s advice to current students. “Take a lot of math,” she says. “The world is a complex place and needs you to be educated. No matter what you ultimately do—economist, doctor, nurse, problem-solver in some other way— to be effective, you need math.”
That core insight fits her work analyzing the effects of social programs. “Anti-poverty policies were at the periphery of my focus at Macalester,” she says. “But to work specifically on poverty issues now is not really a shift in my vision. Macalester brought the International Declaration of Human Rights to my awareness. You cannot have human rights in the abstract. Rights are concrete, and people need power or money to obtain or maintain rights.” At Macalester, Gonwa brought together large visions of human rights with small everyday acts such as her weekly night shift at Casa de Esperanza and its home for battered women. As a former leader in both Macalester Christian Fellowship and Mac Catholics, she continually found communities to reflect upon the imperative to work on behalf of the poor.
Even as Gonwa works to provide effective resources for others’ futures, she is clear that her definition of a purposeful life focuses on today. “International development brings forth a community of faith, united by a mission of hope. I don’t feel we think about the work as a direct relation to God; it’s more that I live every today once, tomorrow only once. Being purposeful isn’t so much about the future, it’s about living with purpose today.”